Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Welcome to Jury Duty
Hilary Sherratt Yancey
August 11, 2014
By Hilary Sherratt Yancey
A version of this article originally appeared on SharedJustice.org, an
online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging
young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public
The other week I got that notice in the mail, the reminder about jury duty: “Report by 8:30 am to the Lawrence District Courthouse.” I complained ceaselessly for a few days. I had a big assignment at work due the same day, my husband-to-be was leaving that morning, and isn’t jury duty just this thing we’re forced into when we attain the all-powerful age of 18?
I was frustrated about it my entire drive to Lawrence, through unknown parts of North Andover and Georgetown, through streets that were unrecognizable even though I’ve lived here for 23 years (that is to say, my whole life). I parked, still grumbling, and made my way into the building.
I first became curious because of the people. There were three different pregnant women, two men who looked like they had walked in from the office, a couple of teenagers in grey sweatshirts, me in my haphazard rain jacket and Ugg boots, and an older woman with an advanced knitting pattern. Some people read Glamour or National Geographic; some had brought books; some had thought of granola bars or coffee.
We had nothing in common but that we were all asked to come to the same place to perform the same task: to be the peers that judge another member of our community and resolve a dispute by hearing evidence.
I don’t know any of the other jurors, and they don’t know me. Yet somehow, we are asked to do this thing together, because even though I don’t know their towns, and I don’t know their families, I am in community with them. We are, together, part of the community of the county, of the state, of the country.
In all of our discussion about community, we rarely talk about the community that is found in a juror room, the community of the law. This community is formed by our living and abiding in a particular place under particular laws, the community that is built by our doing justice according to those laws, whether in their writing, their reforming, their execution, or their judgment.
The law binds us together. The pregnant women and me, the woman with her knitting, and the man in the scuffed brown boots reading People magazine. And while we are quick to take sides (who is a Democrat? who is a Republican? which laws do we or don’t we support?), we are slow to recognize that in a courthouse, the community is predicated not on our agreement with the law but our common responsibility to uphold it and to render justice through it.
In the informational video we watched, we were reminded that jury duty is an oft-forgotten part of the civil rights movement, the counterpart to the right to vote. In fact, in Massachusetts, women weren’t afforded the right to sit on a jury until long after they had received the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. I was surprised by this, mostly because I rarely think of jury duty as a privilege or as an opportunity to exercise my membership in a community. I mostly think of it as a drag, something to be gotten through.
Maybe I’m writing this piece to try and rethink that.
That day we were dismissed early, as all the cases set for trial were resolved out of court. But as I drove back to work, thinking about sitting in that room with people I will never see again, I wondered if I have been missing a kind of community that’s important and precious: the community of citizens that renders judgment on its peers, by its peers; the community that sits in a room with knitting and granola bars that take on a special meaning when you think about how we, gathered together, are living out what it means to live and abide under the law.
And perhaps this is the community I should think of when I next get a notice in my mailbox welcoming me to jury duty.
- Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog:http://thewildlove.wordpress.com chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”